West Virginia House of Delegates Considers Gas Royalty Legislation

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia’s House is considering Senate-passed legislation to authorize natural gas producers to drill when three-fourths of those with royalty rights agree.

At a House hearing Monday, witnesses were divided over whether the bill would unconstitutionally involve the state in private contracts and represents an economic boom for more than out-of-state energy companies.

State Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher says it creates a platform that’s “fair and reasonable to property owners” and is good for the industry and people who work in it.

Julie Archer of the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization says it lacks landowner protections.

Sean O’Leary of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy says a Senate amendment would create tax tiers on gas production that would cut the rate currently from 5 to 4 percent.

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Two dozen West Virginia residents and environmentalists urged state lawmakers on Monday to defeat legislation they said would sharply lower the standards for measuring the quality of streams affected by coal mines’ toxic sludge and acid drainage.

The bill, passed 32-2 by the Senate last week, would direct the Department of Environmental Protection to measure waterway health by fish populations without measuring insect life as well.

At Monday’s House Committee on Energy hearing, environmentalists said they were left out of stakeholder discussions on the legislation pushed by the diminished coal industry. They also said the hearing was only the first opportunity for public comment.

Several called the pro-industry approach “war on water,” countering the industry claim that environmental regulation has meant “war on coal.”

“Water is our most important natural resource,” said Larry Orr, who chairs the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited with 1,400 members. “Not coal, not lumber, not oil, not gas, not any of the products of the extractive industry, it’s water.”

Attorney Mike Becker called the legislation “overreach,” saying it was meant to undermine federal court rulings in cases brought by the Sierra Club and others over environmental standards. The current standard is used across the U.S., and West Virginia has spent decades developing its related water-monitoring system, he said.

Current state law calls for water quality standards based on “biologic life” and finding that a stream “supports a balanced aquatic community that is diverse in species composition.” The bill would delete those words.

Instead, it would call for compliance standards based on “aquatic life” and continued findings that a stream “contains appropriate trophic levels of fish, in streams that have flows sufficient to support fish populations.”

Three West Virginia coal industry representatives said the change will remove barriers to their struggling industry’s ability to compete.

Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the changes are meant to close a loophole that let a federal judge instead of the Legislature decide what West Virginia water quality standards should be. He blamed “anti-coal groups” such as the Sierra Club for setting impossible discharge standards.

“This is the latest front in the war on coal entered by the anti-coal and anti-energy groups as they see their influence with EPA fading under a new president,” Bostic said.

Industry-drafted provisions in the original bill also would have cut state mine safety inspections. They were opposed by the United Mine Workers of America and removed before a rewritten bill cleared the Senate.

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The House of Delegates has followed the Senate and voted to eliminate the state requirement that construction and mining companies post bonds to protect worker wages if they’ve operated in West Virginia less than five years.

The House Bill, approved 85-14 on Monday, would remove the bonding requirement but increase one possible criminal penalty for employers who knowingly relocate or dispose of assets to deprive workers of wages and fringe benefits.

The minimum fine for any person, firm or corporation convicted of the felony would remain $5,000 with the possible maximum fine doubling to $60,000.

In the past 10 years, the Division of Labor reports having cashed and paid $1 million in wages and benefits from bonds by 40 deadbeat companies.

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Advocates for low-income West Virginians are urging the House to defeat a Senate-passed bill to establish a computerized system to verify whether 176,000 households getting food stamps are eligible.

Following pilot programs in nine counties, opponents say the state will spend $15 million for an outside contractor, find little fraud in the federally funded program whose benefit is about $74 a month and set reporting requirements that will knock people off.

Jean Simpson, executive director of Manna Meal, a nonprofit soup kitchen in Charleston, says they feed 400 people daily and taking benefits from the people they see is “shameful.”

The bill would require able-bodied adults without dependents getting the federal benefits to work at least 20 hours a week and limit benefits based on household assets.

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